Matthew Arnold Poetry: British Analysis
A commonplace beginning for criticism of Matthew Arnold’s poetry is one or another of his many well-known critical statements that provide a basis for showing how well or how poorly the critic’s precept corresponds with the poet’s practice. One must remember, however, that most of Arnold’s best work as a poet preceded his finest work as a critic and that his letters reveal dissatisfaction with his poetic “fragments,” as he called them. He did believe that his poems would have their “turn,” just as Tennyson’s and Browning’s had, because they followed closely the trend of modern thinking. Indeed, Arnold’s modernity—his sense of alienation, moral complexity, and humanistic values—makes his work, both critical and creative, a continuing presence in the literary world.
The sense of alienation that carries so much thematic weight in Arnold’s poetry reaches back into his childhood. As a child, he wore a brace for a slightly bent leg. This had an isolating, restricting effect on a boy who enjoyed running and climbing. Also, he early realized the irony of numbers, because, as the second born, he found that his parents’ time and attention did not easily spread over nine children, and, at fourteen, he spent what surely seemed like a year in exile at Winchester School. The need for attention influenced his pose as a dandy, and he probably enjoyed his reputation as an idler, especially in his circle of family and friends who upheld and practiced the Victorian principles of work and duty.
Of course, the religious and social atmosphere in which Arnold approached adulthood conditioned his perception of the alienating forces at work in England: He entered Oxford during the Tractarian controversy that divided conservative and liberal elements in the Church of England, and he knew about the general economic and social discontent that separated the working class from the wealthy. With such factious elements at work—including the dispute between religion and science on the origin of earth and humankind—Arnold, facing his own lover’s estrangement in “To Marguerite—Continued,” could write with justifiable irony that “We mortal millions live alone.” With good reason, then, Arnold formed his ideas on the wholesome effect of order and authority, of education and culture recommended in his prose—evident alike in that quest for unity, wholeness, and joy which, in the poems, his lyric and narrative speakers find so elusive.
In addition to the poems discussed below, the following poems are considered among Arnold’s best work: “The Forsaken Merman,” “The Strayed Reveller,” “Palladium,” “The Future,” “A Dream,” and “A Summer Night.” Although Arnold’s work has been very influential, even at its best it contains elements which can bother the modern reader, such as the over-reliance on interrogative and exclamatory sentences, giving to his ideas in the former case a weighty, rhetorical cast and, in the latter, an artificial rather than a natural emphasis. There is, however, a consistency in the melancholy, elegiac tone and in the modern concern with humankind’s moral condition in a world where living a meaningful life has become increasingly difficult that makes Arnold’s poetry rewarding reading.
“To a Friend”
In the early sonnet “To a Friend,” Arnold praises Sophocles, in one of his memorable lines, because he “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” “Wholeness” was the controlling thought behind the poet’s vision: “an Idea of the world in order not be prevailed over by the world’s multitudinousness,” he tells Clough in a letter critical of the “episodes and ornamental work” that distract both poet and reader from a sense of unity. This unity of idea, in perception and execution, is necessary for poetry “to utter the truth,” as Arnold says in his essay on William Wordsworth, because “poetry is at bottom a criticism of life . . . the greatness of a poet lies in...
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